Eastern promise

Not many Scottish players have braved the move to the Thai League, but the few who have tell of a fascinating experience.

By Paul Murphy

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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I was caught in a monsoon and the nearest hotel to the national stadium only had the penthouse suite which, not knowing the conversion rate and stuck in a monsoon with all my luggage, I got. I do not think the club were too happy about that.

From a cold, wet and windswept night at Firs Park in Falkirk to a steamy night in 35-degree heat in Bangkok is quite a transition.

Scottish players are supposed to wilt in the heat. Playing in high temperatures has been an excuse for national failures from the World Cup in Spain in 1982 to the abject 1-0 defeat in Macedonia in 2008. But a few Scots have made the journey to tropical Thailand and managed to adapt to the stifling humidity and searing heat.

Former Rangers youth and East Stirlingshire man Stuart Kelly, ex-Dundee United and St Mirren winger Steven Robb and, most famously, former Scotland internationalist and Celtic striker Mark Burchill do not have much in common other than their nationality. What they do share is the fact that they are the only three Scots to have played in the Thai League.

Thailand is better known for beaches and temples than for footballing prowess. It has yet to come close to qualifying for a World Cup finals. But the Southeast Asian nation has come a long way in the last decade as its professional league has taken off, giving the likes of Kelly, Robb and Burchill an opportunity to play a part in the growth of the game.

Crumbling provincial grounds are slowly being replaced by purpose-built football stadia. Clubs are adopting a more professional approach to coaching, administration and marketing. And where once you saw only replica shirts of English Premier League teams on the streets of Thailand, you can now no longer leave home without spotting someone in the colours of a Thai League club.

It is fair to say that Thailand remains something of a footballing backwater – a place where foreign players go when they are struggling for a deal elsewhere. But the salaries are more than competitive when compared to the lower leagues of several South American and European countries, which is why the Thai League has a strong Brazilian flavour, combined with a significant Spanish influence and some very talented players from Eastern Europe.

While just three Scots have made the journey east to ply their trade in the energy-sapping temperatures, there is a lengthy list of players who once played in Scotland and who have gone on to have spells at Thai clubs, ranging from a few games to several years.

Robb had played as a winger for Dundee, Dundee United and St Mirren before he took the opportunity to head to Southeast Asia to play for Bangkok-based Port FC. While the Thai League has seen more than its fair share of foreign imports who didn’t justify their salaries and reputations, Robb is fondly remembered by Port fans.

Robb had left St Mirren following the dismissal of manager Gus Macpherson and began looking for a new club. “The move came about through an Australian coach, Nathan Hall,” Robb said. “I didn’t really like working with agents and preferred to do things on my own.

“I had approached a few coaches about possible moves as I wasn’t enjoying it at St Mirren after Gus Macpherson had been sacked. Nathan spoke with the head coach of Thai Port and they invited me over with a view to signing a two-year contract. After one week of training, the contract was agreed.

“I love travelling so the thought of playing in a different country was so exciting for me. The only reservation I had was the language barrier but I was lucky being based in the centre of Bangkok and the other foreigners that were playing in Thailand at the time all stuck together and we would socialise together.”

While Robb enjoyed the experience and, in particular, the friends he made and the language he learned, he warned that Thailand wouldn’t be for everyone.  “My advice for any Scottish player going to Thailand would be they have to be able to adapt to the Thai way of life. Training doesn’t always start on time. You always have to go with the flow.”

Robb returned to Scotland after two years and scored a memorable goal for Brechin City at Ibrox in 2014. He quit the game following a spell with Montrose but keeps a connection with Thailand as he runs two online clothing businesses that are a legacy of his time in Bangkok.

Thailand also made a mark on Kelly, who played for East Stirlingshire after being released by Rangers following several years as a youth player at Ibrox. New Zealand has been his main home since he left the Shire in 2004, but he has made several forays outside the country, including his Thai adventure in 2011.

The transfer to Khon Kaen in the north east of the country came after moves to Israel and then Iceland failed to materialise and it’s fair to say his new club did not roll out the red carpet on his arrival. “I actually met my team in Bangkok and was told to get myself a hotel,” said Kelly. “I was caught in a monsoon and the nearest hotel to the national stadium only had the penthouse suite which, not knowing the conversion rate and stuck in a monsoon with all my luggage, I got. I do not think the club were too happy about that.

“Living in Khon Kaen, I really liked the north east and it was a lot different than moving to Bangkok. I settled in really fast.”

Like Robb, language was one of the main challenges and diet was also an issue.

“No one really spoke English and all the foreign players spoke fluent Thai, so as I went on I learned Thai. I ate Pizza Hut and McDonalds for a month or so until I picked up Thai dishes as I was scared of getting sick and missing games at first.”

In a country where the power is often not with the team manager, Kelly found the club politics challenging when it affected his ability to help the team. “I had discussions with players and the coaches about how I should be playing more but the president did not want me to, so I was basically on a football holiday at times, which frustrated me.

“Saying that, I did play away from home against all the top clubs and performed well but then the next week everything changes. I remember one game we were behind and the coach was putting me on but then the goalkeeping coach runs over to tell him not to, which I thought was strange. The coach was an honest guy but he never had the power, which is the thing in Thai football, and he told me afterwards he was told not to put me on.

“My partner came over and we did coaching in the schools and the orphanage and I really miss living in Khon Kaen and liked the city. It’s just a shame the football side of things never worked out.”

Burchill was also located in north-east Thailand, with Esan United in Sisaket. He settled well and scored regularly but his spell at the club was cut short when Livingston came calling and offered him the post of player-assistant manager, a position he could not turn down at the age of 32.

Burchill is now better known for his work in punditry, having left Livingston in 2015, but his connection to Thailand remains strong and he often returns for holidays with his family.

Danny Invincibile was once a teammate of Burchill at Kilmarnock and the Australian midfielder spent eight years in Ayrshire before ending his time in Scotland with a brief stint at St Johnstone. A short time in Cyprus with Ermis Aradippou preceded his move to Army United in Thailand’s top tier.

Invincibile’s time at the club was blighted by persistent injuries but he still managed to score one of the most important goals in their history when he struck the winner in the Thai FA Cup semi-final in 2012.

When his contract ended the following year, the then 34-year-old called time on his playing career but not on Thailand. He is now head of the academy at Bangkok United, a club that has finished second and third in the Thai League in the past two years.

Another Aussie to have turned out in Scotland and Thailand is Trent McLenahan. The defender had two productive years at Hamilton Academical, following early career spells at West Ham, MK Dons and Hereford United.

His move to Thailand came four years on from his time at Hamilton and he turned out for PTT Rayong and Phuket FC in the later stages of his career before returning to Australia.

Another link to Hamilton comes in the form of French striker Christian Nade, who, like Burchill and Invincibile, ended up in Thailand after a brief stint in Cyprus. The powerful front man made his name as a fan favourite with Hearts from 2007 to 2010. While he wasn’t a prolific scorer, his robust playing style made him an awkward opponent for defences.

Nade spent 18 months at Samut Songkhram and six monhs at PTT Rayong. He he has fond memories of Thailand and believes the standard is rising all the time.  “The Thai fans are very passionate about football,” he said. “There is a really good level in Thailand and it will keep improving.

“The football in Thailand is very high intensity and always drops after 70 minutes due to the weather and the effort the players have made beforehand. In Scotland, the intensity will last until the end of the game but that’s the only difference I would say.”

Nade subsequently returned to Scotland to help Dundee win promotion to the Premiership. He was released by the Dee but made his way back to the top tier when he joined Hamilton after a stint at Raith Rovers. Now 33, Nade continues to play in his adopted home country, turning out for Dumbarton in the Championship.

Former St Mirren striker Billy Mehmet, one-time Hearts signing Rocco Visconte, former Gretna midfielder Erik Paartalu, and ex-Hibs defender Shelton Martis are other players who have ended up in Thailand after playing in Scotland.

Three who remain include former Ross County striker Melvin de Leeuw, now in his fourth year in the country, ex-Inverness striker Lonsana Doumbaya, who joined Prachuap FC this year, and Florent Sinama-Pongolle.

Sinama-Pongolle is better known for his time at Liverpool than his brief, injury-hit spell with Dundee United in 2016 but he has settled well with Chainat FC. He suffered relegation with them before staying on and helping them back into the top tier.

The manager who signed the Frenchman for Dundee United, Mixu Paatelainen,  also appeared in Thailand this year, joining Ubon UMT United in the north east.

Mixu is not the first former Kilmarnock boss to try his luck in the Thai League either. Kenny Shiels took over at BEC Tero Sasana in 2015 but was sacked after 11 games without a win.

For several reasons, Thailand is not the destination of choice for Scottish players. The climate, the diet and the playing style are all very different, while the internal club politics can prove too much for those unaccustomed to an unqualified club president picking the team and ordering the substitutions rather than the manager. However, as Burchill, Robb and Kelly testify, there is a charm to life in Thailand.

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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